When a severe windstorm ripped through the Amboy City Park in Amboy, Ill., and destroyed nearly 100 majestic oak trees, residents took the loss to heart. Generations had picnicked and played under the 150-year-old trees.
“The park is part of everyone’s life in town,” says resident Beverly Halsey, 52. “I came here with my grade-school class every year for picnics. There were horse races and county fairs. I remember lying on a blanket to watch fireworks.”
Unwilling to turn the trees into mulch, Amboy (pop. 2,561) residents created a one-of-a-kind art park. So far, 29 fallen oaks have been sculpted into monuments of people and places from the town’s past. The carvings appear among the hundreds of undamaged oaks in the 30-acre park, which attracts busloads of sightseers.
“It’s a miracle that came out of a disaster,” declares Halsey.
Businessman George Kaleel came up with the limbs-to-lemonade idea, following the June 1, 1999, storm. “The next morning I went to the mayor and told him I knew some carvers,” Kaleel says. “I said not to cut the trees down but to top them at 10 to 12 feet.”
Chainsaw artists Bob and Marie Boyer of Marseilles, Ill. (pop. 4,655), former residents with their own sweet memories of bike rides and ballgames in the park, have been buzzing ever since with commissions from families and organizations. Working from photographs and sketches, the full-time artists complete a carving in four to five days, charging between $800 and $1,100.
“It’s hard,” Bob Boyer says of the art form. “Maybe in another pass you can capture it. And maybe you can ruin it.”
Within a month of the disastrous storm, the Boyers completed their first sculpture, a baseball player, to represent a favorite pastime among residents. The city financed the first few sculptures, including a trio of presidential statues honoring Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, who all visited the northern Illinois town.
“Everything in the park has some significance to Amboy,” says Mayor Leroy Stambaugh, who marvels at the town’s outpouring of affection for the project.
A stroll through the park is an introduction to town history and much-loved locals. Statues include Olive Ann Shaw Evitts, a pioneer woman who moved there as a baby in 1846, and carpenter Bernard Bushman, who stands with a hammer in his pocket.
“Dad made birdhouses, corncribs, hog houses and children’s chairs for everybody in town,” says Bushman’s daughter, Helen Becker. The family has commissioned a statue of their mother, Lucille, who will be holding a pan of dinner rolls.
A monument commission by Halsey brings bittersweet memories. The National Guardsman statue honors her son, Joseph “Joey” Ketchum, a National Guard recruiter killed in a car accident at age 24. The park’s grand old trees, says Halsey, have been the backdrop for so many of her family’s photos and memories: Little League pictures, high school class photos and Joey at 16 with his first car.
Louie Scott, a local railroad worker who lived to be 105, is memorialized in a statue of a railroad conductor standing beside a sculpture of a five-car train. Amboy boomed in 1854 when the Illinois Central Railroad steamed into town.
Kiara Kaleel, 10, proudly shows off her favorite statues of a schoolgirl and schoolboy. In 2000, students and teachers at Central Elementary School pooled their money for the statues. Kiara, with her trademark ponytail, was one of the models.
A memorial to local farmer Willie Morrissey was commissioned by his 12 children. “It was a cold, windy day when I was working on that statue,” recalls Bob Boyer. “Four of the girls stopped by and walked around the tarp and saw him. Two started to cry. I knew I had it right.”
And the town got it right, according to Mayor Stambaugh.
“We just keep adding statues,” he says. “Amboy is known from coast to coast for this park.”